I’m very fortunate to be spending a week in Japan thanks to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The research exchange is funded by the Japan Foundation’s Center for Global Partnership through the Woodrow Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum in partnership with Institute of Developing Economies in Japan and Nanjing University’s Center for Environmental Management and Policy in China. The exchange aims to build a network of water policy experts to solve pollution problems in Lake Tai, one of China’s most polluted lakes. My former colleague Andy Buchsbaum took part in the exchange in China earlier this year, but he couldn’t make this trip to Japan, and I was thrilled to be his back up and bring a Great Lakes perspective to the program.
While the ultimate focus is solving water pollution problems in China, I’ve spent the past few days getting a crash course in Japanese culture, government, history, and law. From my American perspective, there are some fundamental aspects of Japan’s society that shape its water policies.
First, Japan is a very prosperous and densely populated country with relatively minimal natural resources, including freshwater. The whole country is similar to the densely populated East Coast of the U.S., with massive metropolitan regions squeezed into a small land base. This forced Japan to aggressively address environmental issues in the 1970s, about the same time that modern environmental policy began in the U.S. As a result, Japan’s environmental management and practices are well established and in many ways ahead of ours.
Second, Japan’s culture overtly values the group over the individual. Country, company, and community take priority over any single person. With a strong cultural allegiance to the group, Japan can operate with a relatively limited government in terms of regulation and taxation. I’m just beginning to understand this fundamental difference from America, where individual freedom is far more valued. Japan is also almost completely homogenous ethnically, with the diversity we see in America noticeable absent. I wouldn’t trade places (especially after I was stopped by the local police to check my passport and papers), but Japan’s cultural value on the collective good makes managing common resources like freshwater far easier.
Finally, Japan has a very different cultural and religious view towards nature. Many Japanese people practice elements of Shinto, which sees nature as embodying the divine concept of “kami.” This creates a spiritual view towards water, reflected in subtle and not-so-subtle ways (such as Shinto shrines erected in shallow waters). Shinto beliefs thus provide a strong foundation for a deep and respectful relationship with rivers and water itself.
A few short paragraphs cannot do complete justice to Japan’s rich and unique culture, and it’s one of the reasons research exchanges like this program are invaluable for better understanding other countries’ environmental laws and policies. Cultural differences aside, there is much we can learn from each other in terms of nuts and bolts water protection and management, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to broaden my perspective.